Navarre from north to south, in five days
From the valley of Baztán to the desert of the Bardenas Reales, we propose a trip filled with contrasts, along one of the most beautiful and varied routes in Europe.
By: Luis Meyer
The Community of Navarre has many characteristics that make it a unique region in Europe, but one of the most striking is its overwhelming diversity: from the jungle green of the Pyrenees to the arid and Martian ochre colours of the Bardenas Reales – traversing the region from north to south is a trip chock-full of stimulating contrasts that bombard the senses.
And this route is exactly what we propose: setting off from the Baztán Valley and ending up in Tudela, a five-day journey with an average of two and a half hours behind the wheel per day, in order to spend the rest of the day soaking in the landscapes, storybook towns and delicious food.
Day 1: from Baztán Valley to Irati Forest
It doesn’t matter where you look: as far as the eye can see in Baztán Valley, nestled in the Pyrenees, everything is carpeted year-round with green meadows and bordered by majestic farmhouses of wood and white stone. There is no need to be an accomplished mountaineer to traverse its endless paths: despite their rough and uneven appearance, anyone can enter its forests and enjoy their silent leafiness. Of all the options, we recommend visiting the Xorroxin Waterfall, near the town of Erratzu, which can be reached after a pleasant walk through beech and chestnut trees.
This area also offers captivating urban landscapes, such as that of Elizondo, the largest town in the area, with its mansions and manor homes of people who returned centuries ago from the New World laden with riches. Another town, Ziga, paints a more humble and pastoral picture with its stone houses and winding streets. In the nearby town of Amaiur is the Arretxea Palace, an imposing mansion of eclectic architecture.
Baztán Valley has more surprises underground too: the Zugarramurdi caves (a passageway 120 metres long and up to 12 metres tall) are famous for their medieval legends of witchcraft and witches’ covens, and just eight kilometres away are the Urdazubi-Urdax caves, with an impressive display of stalactites and stalagmites.
We have left the best of this leg of the journey until last: Irati Forest is the name given to this chameleon-like beech grove (one of the largest in Europe), which changes colour every season. The best time to visit it in in autumn: there are few places in the world where can you see such vibrant orange foliage.
Day 2: from the Aralar Range to the headwaters of the Urederra
We set off eastwards, where Navarre touches Guipúzcoa through the Aralar Range, a woody, high landscape where it is worth stopping at every one of its viewpoints to take in the wide expanses of the landscape. Also recommended is a stop in one of its cheese shops: this area is known for its shepherding, as well as for its famous Idiazábal cheese.
A few minutes away by car, there are two other unmissable views. The first is Mendukilo Cave (where some scenes from You’re Nothing Special were shot), which was used as a mountain stable for years, and has recently been renovated to welcome visitors: a floating walkway allows you to pass easily under its infinite stalactites, until you arrive at the Dragon’s Dwelling, a huge cavern over 25 metres high. The second attraction is just 15 minutes away: Lekunberri, a pretty town whose main highlight is the majestic mansions of its old town, some of which date from the 12th century and are still standing. Larraún (in the centre of a valley with the same name) and Leitza (with its intricate alleys between traditional farmhouses) are another two small towns which embody the charm of the area.
We continue through the Ultzama Valley, where the landscape becomes less severe, with its rolling hills dotted with picturesque little towns, and begin our ascent up the Sierra de Urbasa, towards the heavens and sometimes above the clouds (common in this area), towards the headwaters of the Urederra River. It is no accident that its name in Basque means ‘beautiful water’: the water in the area’s rivers and pools has a turquoise colour no less intense than that of the Mediterranean Sea.
Day 3: from Estella-Lizarra to Olite
We head east to the beautiful town of Estella-Lizarra, a Roman town along the Camino de Santiago, with imposing churches such as those of San Pedro de Rúa or San Miguel, palaces including those of the kings of Navarre, dating to the 12th century, and cobbled bridges and streets which transport you to bygone times. There is a lot of life on its cobblestones and a rich gastronomy based on hunting. The famous suckling pig (gorrín) cooked on a wood fire comes highly recommended.
The next stop is Viana, a small city whose many stately homes, palaces and churches bore witness to its splendour between the 16th and 18th centuries. Another essential stop is the gothic church of Santa María, at whose feet rest the remains of Prince Cesare Borgia.
We end this leg in Olite, a pretty town which encircles the castle of the same name, where we can feast our eyes on its crenelated gothic towers and beautiful patios. If we wish to please the palate, we should not leave without trying its wines and muscatels – let’s not forget that we are in one of Spain’s largest wine-producing regions.
Day 4: from Leyre to Sangüesa
The 11th century crypt, gothic dome and famous Porta Speciosa (beautiful door) make up the architecture of the Leyre Monastery, which more than just pleasing to the eye: if you stand still and it is silent around you, you will hear the Gregorian chants of its Benedictine monks.
We continue on to Sangüesa, a small town packed full of monuments in which the church of Santa María la Real and its imposing façade stand out as masterpieces of Romanesque architecture, having been designated a National Monument in the 19th century. The Baroque palace of Vallesantoro and its impressive wooden eaves are another sight not to be missed.
Day 5: from the Bardenas Reales to Tudela
This desert, with natural statues in improbable shapes that appear to have been sculpted by an invisible hand, has one of the most unique landscapes on the planet, and it is not surprising that dozens of films have been filmed here. Its lonely and eroded landscape transmits a sensation of indescribable calm… as long as you don’t trip over a film crew, that is.
We arrive at the nearby Tudela, one of Spain’s most important cities of Islamic origin. The best plan is to walk through its medieval streets, ending up in its beautiful Plaza de los Fueros and sit down at one of its numerous terraces to have an aperitif and reminisce on a trip full of contrasts, images, and unforgettable flavours and sounds.